Pieces of the Past: Trying to date an antique cabinet

Dawn Waxon

"I have recently acquired an old cabinet of some form, but it has been repaired rather extensively. I haven't found any crafter marks or dates, but it is made of solid wood and not veneer. Is there any way of telling how old it is?"

First, I would like to congratulate the writer on acquiring a substantial item for their home, obviously one they have an interest in and a love for.

Lack of photos or more descriptive terms make specific commentary difficult; however, we can get into our imaginative time machines and travel back to the origins of a most valued piece of furniture.

Cabinets grew from the need of our material culture to store papers, important documents and hide valuables. The earliest of this type of case furniture (designed to act as a receptacle or storage space, named for the box-like "case" or "carcass" structure into which drawers or shelves are fitted) was a "dug out" -- a hollowed-out log with a lid, thus called a "trunk."  

This evolved into what became the Medieval carved wood chest or coffer, usually oak in Northern Europe and walnut in Southern Europe. As time passed, folks tired of bending down to retrieve items from their trunks, which by the 1500s were used so much as a convenient seat that the upper crust who owned these important pieces yearned for an upright chest design with access from the front. Progress can't be stopped, and so cabinet makers in Italy and France met the demands of the 16th-century furniture buyers and, voila, the modern cabinet was born.

These early examples, as well as the later British designs of the 17th century, were often designed to sit on a separate stand or other low piece of furniture, much like your television, only very highly decorated. In 1611, a heavy wooden "cabinet house" was even created as a doll house. The "cabinet house" sat on a wooden stand and contained three stories of ornately carved wooden furniture.  

The 16th century also saw the widespread use of portable writing boxes, what the French termed "escritoires." These evolved into "varguenos" or "barguenos," Spanish types of drop-front writing cabinets that rest on chests or trestle stands. The interiors were often elaborately carved, painted, or decorated with inlay. The vargueno remained popular throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Today we are more familiar with the descendant of the escritoire -- the secretary, or vertical fall front writing desk.

Due to the preciousness of it's contents, the cabinet grew in size and in craftsmanship, often becoming the most important piece of furniture in the house. Beautiful design elements such as carving, veneering, marquetry, inlay and parquetry, as well as the additions of more doors, drawers and hidden compartments, resulted in respect for the cabinet maker, particularly the joiner, who employed solid-wood construction of frame and paneling. Many of the designs these cabinet makers executed are still valid today, as witnessed by steady sales of furnishings, both vintage and new, based on the fancies of Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite.

One could assume that the late-18th to mid-19th century Industrial Revolution, part of which included inventions leading to the mass-production of cabinets, would have put the traditional cabinet maker out of business. Au Contraire! Although the neighborhood cabinet shoppe ceased to be the main source of furniture, the growing middle class and its newfound affluence created a demand for finely made furniture. That's right -- daddy worked at the mass-manufactured cabinet factory all day to afford a custom made cabinet from his friendly craftsman, probably to house the wife's collection of Cabinet Ware -- small decorative pieces (hand-painted plates, cups, saucers, etc.) that were not intended for use, but to be shown off in a display cabinet -- a popular 19th-century concept. 

As with any demand, supply must follow, and the population of traditional cabinet makers grew. By this time, cabinet design included legs or feet, drawers along with doors and sometimes drawers behind doors. Growth continued through the mid- to late-19th century as the British, then American, Arts and Crafts movement took the public by storm and the demand for quality, handcrafted goods swelled.

A drop in general furniture quality occurred during the economic Depressions of the late 1800s and the 1930s, two World Wars, and the implementation of income tax, resulting in less excess income for the public to spend on luxury items. However, every cloud has it's silver lining, and the post-WWII disillusionment with low-quality, mass-produced furnishings led to a mid-20th-century woodworking movement among both hobbyists and skilled craftsmen.

It seems our time machine has delivered us back, safe and sound, to 2008. The current view of the cabinet maker is of a handy man installing prefab cupboards in a kitchen. This is a disservice to the fine work many craftspeople are doing today. Whether you need a custom TV cabinet or a hand carved apron piece for that table restoration, don't hesitate to contact your friendly, neighborhood cabinet maker. After all, it's tradition.

Dating a cabinet involves a series of questions and observations.

What type of construction is the cabinet? Corner, wall, hanging?

What type of cabinet is it? What's kept in it? Is it utilitarian and used to store jewelry, correspondence, tools, wardrobe, or is it meant for kitchen use? Or is it a "Collector's Cabinet" or "Archive Cabinet" as in a China Cabinet, Display Cabinet or Curio Cabinet?

From what type of wood or woods is the cabinet constructed? Typical hard woods will be oak, walnut, cherry, maple, and mahogany. Pine is used extensively in European cabinet construction and will be soft. Victorian era cabinets were often constructed of mixed woods as they were meant to be painted.

What style is the cabinet? Classical Victorian, Primitive Country, Shaker, Craftsman, Mission, Art and Crafts, Aesthetic, Art Deco, Mid-20th Century Modern, Gothic, Rococo, Japanesque, Chinese Chippendale (as illustrated in the "Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director"  by Thomas Chippendale), Federal or simple American Oak?

What techniques were utilized for decoration? Carving, Inlay (forming a pattern or picture by inserting into the wood pieces of veneer, shell, straw, bone, ivory, tortoise, mother of pearl, pewter, brass, or other colored materials), Marquetry (forming decorative patterns, designs, or pictures with veneer), Parquetry (a geometric mosaic of wood pieces, introduced in 1684 as "parquet de menuiserie" ("woodwork parquet") to replicate the marble flooring that needed constant washing, which often rotted the joists beneath), or veneer work? Has the cabinet been painted, French polished or have decals been applied?

How is the cabinet constructed? Is the wood hand-planed? Are the joints dovetailed, mortise-and-tenon, pegged, wedged, glued, nailed, screwed? What types of nails? What types of screws? Is the cabinet mass-produced or hand-crafted?

What style of mounts (hinges, escutcheons) does the cabinet have? From what metals are they manufactured? What style, materials, and construction are the handles? The feet?

What repairs have been made? Have original elements been modified or replaced?

Cabinets should not be confused with cupboards (a piece of closed storage furniture with a door on the front or open sets of shelves) or dressers (known as the "hutch" in the United States).

The art of deduction is no better taught than by the great modern mythological character Sherlock Holmes. Holmes preferred to "concentrate ... upon the details," "observe and ... draw inferences from our observations" and "eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth."

Dawn Waxon is a blogger for the Linn County Leader. Contact her atmainstreetemporium@sbcglobal.net.